Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is Trump's Foreign Policy Anti-Obama?

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently tweeted a provocative take on Trump foreign policy. He wrote: "NATO. Paris Accords. Saudi Arabia. Cuba. Trump foreign policy has only one guiding principle: do the opposite of Obama, no matter the cost." Of course, his is a partisan take. That said, it makes for an interesting debate topic, as it does at least have the veneer of truth, right? He's only been in office a few months, yet Trump has already targeted several of Obama's key foreign policies. So, with that in mind, I asked my CWCP colleague Yohanes Sulaiman for his thoughts on Murphy's tweet. His response is below, and mine follows afterward.  

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump as anti-Obama?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he is against a lot of stuff that Obama was for, like the Paris Accords. But at the same time, Trump is basically responding to what his main constituents, those in the rust belt who voted for him, think and want politically, economically, and so on. His supporters are against trade deals and the Paris Accords, for example, because they fear both are job killers. Like it or not, that's what many people in the so-called flyover states believe.

To simply call whatever Trump does as anti-Obama risks ignoring the real and valid concerns of Trump's base and that, in turn, could hand Trump another term in 2020 on a silver platter.

Brad Nelson: At first glance, there does seem to be an anti-Obama bent to Trump's foreign policy. After all, there have been a number of shifts or reversals, on a wide range of issues, from the Obama era: climate change, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe (NATO/EU), and so on. I suspect there are a number of motives in play; it's not as simple as an anti-Obama reflexive impulse. Here are a few guesses.

First, Trump could genuinely believe that Obama foreign policy was misguided, that he sincerely thinks Obama was dragging the US in a wrong direction globally and regionally on security, diplomatic and economic affairs.

Second, he might seek to limit the successes and preferably damage Obama's legacy because of a personal beef with Obama. It's possible. Some say jealously is a factor: that he can’t get past the fact his predecessor was so beloved by the media and a considerable swath of the American public. Others point to personal animosity. For instance, if Trump really sees the ongoing Russiagate negative headlines and investigations as a conspiracy driven by Obama and his staff (like Susan Rice) and Obama holdovers in the US government, it would make sense that he has a big axe to grind against Obama himself. Rolling back or watering down his purported "successes,” like the Paris Accords, the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, among other things, are viable ways to spite Obama.

Third, as you suggest, domestic politics likely play a big role here. Many of Trump’s foreign policies and policy statements—including, yes, his tweets—are supported by his core supporters. He’s simply doing what his base wants. For instance, his base wants the wall built, think they’re being ripped off on trade deals by foreign nations, want a more aggressive approach to Islamic terrorism, demand US allies and friend to do more “burden sharing,” see climate change as either a hoax or something that’s been overly dramatized by liberals, and don’t see Russia, and Putin in particular, as enemies of the US. As a result, then, Trump has a domestic political incentive to move away, more or less, from certain Obama foreign policies.

Fourth, Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, for autocrats, and that’s moved US foreign policy away from prizing human rights and reform, which stands in contrast to the Obama years. At one time or another, he’s complimented or praised a wide array of foreign autocrats, including al-Sisi, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, King Salman, Duterte, Xi Jinping, just to name but a few. Now, why is this the case? Perhaps it’s because his strategic thinking is in line with realpolitik, which coldly prioritizes national security interests above mushy-headed ideals. Maybe it’s because he sees the world’s autocrats as political brothers, with whom he shares similar political beliefs and instincts. Perhaps it’s because he has business interests in some authoritarian countries, and so he feels the need to cozy up to and flatter leaders there.

What say you, CWCP readers? Is Trump simply anti-Obama, or are there other things going on here? Let us know.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Trump Foreign Policy: Change or Not?

For last few weeks, there has considerable discussion in the US about whether there’s change afoot in President Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy—specifically, whether he’s bending and shifting his so-called “America First” foreign policy more in line with traditional Republican foreign policy values and interests. Those who believe this is the case point to a slew of recent events and statements emanating from the Trump White House: the US air strikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump's public support for NATO, his administration's criticism of Russia, and a palpable de-escalation of tensions with China. In total, these moves may signal a foreign policy direction for Team Trump. But is it? And what’s really going on here?

Below CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman offer their takes on these topics.

Yohanes Sulaiman

Trying to describe and explain Trump's foreign policy is basically, in my view, trying to answer whether structure or agency is more important. With regards to structural analysis, one could make a strong argument that Trump's recent moves toward "mainstream" GOP foreign policy is basically a result of structural push-back. For instance, in trying to unilaterally punish China economically, he found out that China supposedly holds the cards that might allow him to solve North Korea problem. Similarly, he is moving against Russia because that's the only way for him to deal with Syria problem. As a result, he ends up moving to conventional/mainstream GOP position.

That said, the agency part here is also important: whichever part of the globe Trump is focused on is based on Trump’s whims. And we can actually also make a strong argument that Trump's cajoling China or throwing missiles at Syria is a part of bargaining, in the sense that Trump remains unpredictable, outside the mainstream GOP policy, but he capitalizes on it, thus making moves that catch his domestic and foreign opponents off guard. Assad most likely didn't expect Trump to attack him due to Trump's perceived closeness with Russia. Similarly with North Korea, by dangling the carrot of economic cooperation and the stick of retaliation, Trump might be able to pressure China to actually do something about North Korea. This negotiating stance, which to borrow Nixon's term, the Madman theory, would be outside the GOP's mainstream position.

Brad Nelson

That's an interesting take. But it assumes that Trump's foreign policy really has changed in concrete, significant ways. I look at it this way: I separate Trump's foreign policy goals from his and his staff's statements and the actions taken/implemented by Team Trump. Regarding the latter, sure, there has been considerable shifts and turns since January. Indeed, we seen changes on this front from Trump himself, on NATO, Russia, intervention in Syria, his willingness to use force more generally, and so on. And there's been public pivots and mixed signals within Team Trump. Most notably, it seems as if almost every comment by Nikki Haley is contradicted Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer.

But all the statements and actions by the White House are done in the service of some foreign policy goal or goals. That's the point of them; they're put out there or implemented to achieve certain outcomes. And so, in my mind, the bigger issue is whether Trump's foreign policy goals have changed in the last three months. On this matter, I'm not so sure. And this is what some hardcore Trumpites are currently arguing, in response to the prevailing view that Trump is forming foreign policy in a random, ad hoc manner. They believe his goals haven't changed at all, and that Trump is flexible in pursuing these goals. In other words, the words and tools used by the US vis-a-vis various global problems and issues might vary over time, but the overarching foreign policy goals will remain mostly the same. Sure, there is a self-serving, partisan aspect to this argument, but it also has some merit.

I think of the 59 missiles recently launched on Syria as one example. American pundits, commentators and analysts were breathlessly quick to proclaim this act a decisive shift in US foreign policy. After all, he campaigned on keeping the US out of needless foreign wars, especially the one in Syria, even going so far as to signal that he'd be willing to delegate the issue to Russia to solve. But additionally, US intervention in Syria up to that point had been solely directed against AQ and ISIS members and activities. So, in their view, the attack on Assad was something new and different--and also something good. This crowd loudly cheered the attack, seeing it as a just and proper punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and something that was long overdue, since Obama walked back his infamous red line years ago.

Meantime, Trump did suffer a temporary blowback from a part of his base as a result of the attack on Syria. These folks started to worry that he'd betrayed them. Was he becoming a normalized GOPer? Were establishment GOPers getting the upper hand over Trump in their battle with outsiders like Steve Bannon? And where was the restrained foreign policy they voted for? Bombing Syria isn't American First, is it?

But in the end, much of this is massive hyperbole. A one-off, limited attack on Syria does not portend deeper US involvement in the war. And since the attack, US defense officials have declared that there aren't further plans to attack/oust Assad. Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the attack was done solely with Assad in mind. At the time of the bombing, he was meeting with Xi Jinping at Trump's "Southern White House" in Florida, and so it's possible the timing of the attack purposeful: yes, to punish Assad, but also to send a signal to Xi that he's not a pushover, that he's a strong, decisive leader. Of course, there are other possible audiences as well. The North Korea problem has seemingly loomed larger over the last three months, with the Kim cabal and Trump and his staff publicly sparring. It's very possible that Trump hoped the Syria bombing got Kim's attention, serving notice that Kim ought not to test Trump. And lastly, because of a host of scandals and investigations, Trump has been battling low approval polls since the inauguration. It would not be a surprise if the hyper-sensitive Trump thought that bombing Assad would add a distraction into the news cycle and offer a brief rally around the flag effect for his benefit.

But let's get back to the discussion of Trump's foreign policy goals. It seems evident that Trump's main foreign policy goals center around a handful of projects: (1) improving relations with Russia and China, (2) combating terrorism, (3) reducing the threat of North Korea, and (4) bringing more, better jobs back to the US. Does anything that Team Trump has said or done over the last month or so undermine these goals? Not really, right? I mean, I'm not seeing much change on those fronts. The #MOAB was just dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan; more anti-terrorism troops have been sent to Syria; Trump's already vetoed the TPP, may open up NAFTA, and extracted some Chinese investments while Xi was in town. And Trump hasn’t backed off the notion that better US-Russia ties are a desirable goal.

Oh sure, some will point to the White House's more stringent comments on Russia's actions in Syria, in addition to Trump's statement that US-Russian relations are at a low point, as evidence that big policy changes are in the works. Perhaps, though I'm skeptical. With the hubbub surrounding Team Trump's possible collusion with Russia to win the election, Trump has an incentive to publicly distance himself from Russia. It's one of the paradoxical outcomes we may find going forward: while Trump campaigned on having good ties to Russia, and he may still want the US to have better ties with Russia, the election shenanigans and the subsequent investigations may well force him to pump the brakes on improving ties to Moscow and giving Russia the concessions it desires (lifting of sanctions, reduced support for NATO, etc.). But before we declare Trump's proposed outreach to Russia completely dead, we need more information. In particular, I'd like to know what what's being said behind the scenes: just because public rhetoric on Russia may be heating up a tad from Team Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being communicated to Russia privately, away from the public's eyes and ears.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trump and Russia

Picture credit: CNN

Reports on the connections between Trump/the people in his orbit and Russia continue to dog the White House. This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s made little attempt to publicly, exhaustively clarify his relationship with Russia; instead, he’s opted to dismiss reports as a “witch hunt.” But is it?

President Trump has traveled extensively to Russia, at a minimum, for his beauty pageants. In the past, he’s bragged about meeting and having a good relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he now denies. Trump’s sons have stated that the Russian market is vital to the growth of the Trump organization, even going so far as to say that “money is pouring in from Russia.” And, as we know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is his unprovoked and consistently flattering, obsequious remarks about Russia and Putin; Trump’s been more than willing to defend Russia, even if that means he has to criticize and demonize past US presidents, the US media, America’s intelligence community and military, including its generals, in the process. Moreover, some of Trump's stated foreign policy positions--such as his willingness to hand the Middle East to Russia, his tepid support for NATO, his disinterest in Russia's annexation of Crimea, and his inclination to water down if not weaken US sanctions on Moscow--buck longstanding US strategy and are right in line with Russian interests. Indeed, if there’s one consistency in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it’s his blatant Russophilia.

But the smoke surrounding Trump isn’t simply limited to him; it also hovers over a number of Trump consiglieres. Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, JD Gordon, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others, have been identified as communicating with a host of Russian figures--including the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kiselyak, close associates of Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and even Russian hackers--prior to Trump taking office this January. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, so far, hasn’t been pinpointed in any nefarious activities with Russia, has deep, friendly ties to Russia as former CEO of ExxonMobil. Indeed, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Freedom—Russia’s highest honor for a foreign citizen--personally by Putin.

The links between folks on each side of the Washington-Moscow axis are said to possibly involve such things as business affairs, banking ties, diplomatic discussions, and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. At bottom, then, the manifold linkages and communications binding both sides together seem quite diverse and extensive.

Certainly, all of this begs a host of questions. Most notably, why do so many of Trump advisers, cabinet members, and surrogates have connections to Russia? Why have they repeatedly lied about or hid their ties to Russia? Why is Trump ostensibly a sycophant for Russia and its president? In short, what the heck is going on here?

Benign Events

Maybe the contacts and meetings with Russian figures were mostly innocent. For instance, it’s plausible that they were part of the normal prep for a future Trump administration. After all, that is what incoming administrations do with foreign nations and their diplomats: develop contacts, hold discussions, and get a feel of all of the involved parties. It’s also plausible that the Trump administration’s coziness with Russia is part of a larger strategic plan to woo Moscow for America’s interests. By developing good relations with Russia, so goes the logic, the US might be able to delegate the Syria problem to Moscow, gain a powerful anti-terrorism partner, and seduce a vital state to balance against a continued rising/aggressive China. If either or both are true, I can see how Team Trump could believe it has a political incentive to downplay, perhaps even mislead or lie, about its interactions and engagements with Russia, given the US domestic climate surrounding the Russian hacks and attempts to hijack the election. But if so, it’s gamble the team has made, and probably not a good one. For they’ve now manufactured a bad situation—a cover-up and resultant investigations and a dubious American public—to paper over eye-raising but mostly legal actions and maneuvers. Trump would have been far, far better off simply releasing his taxes and comprehensively detailing and explaining his and his team's relationship to Russia.

Nefarious Schemes 

But maybe Trump and his staff aren’t so innocent. Perhaps all the smoke surrounding the Trump administration is evidence of a truly 5-five alarm fire brewing inside the White House. The big fear among many Americans is that Trump and his staff are deliberately concealing and prevaricating about their interactions with Russia because they have something to hide—that they or Trump himself have done something illegal or something that would provoke widespread outrage in the US.

Yes, the major worry is that they’ve colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances at winning the presidential election. In other words, Trump is a real life Manchurian Candidate, a foreign stooge swept into power by Moscow, ready and willing to do its bidding. This a conspiratorial view of Trump, to be sure, yet not particularly far-fetched, alas. Given what I’ve already written above about Trump and his staff, plus his public calls during the campaign season exhorting Russia and Wikileaks to damage the Clinton machine, all added on top of his narcissistic personality quirks, a treasonous act is something that just shouldn’t be dismissed.

But even if Trump’s not quite a foreign stooge, not entirely willing to embrace and implement Russian-favored policies and worldviews, there’s still the grave concern about his role in subverting America’s democracy. We already know that the election wasn’t exactly free and fair, given the Russia-Wikileaks collaboration, and that Clinton was likely, though not definitively, cheated out of winning the presidency. That in itself has tarnished the veneer of American democracy: we have to face the fact that foreign powers can manipulate and distort US elections. But if Trump directly or indirectly played a role in stealing the win, that’s something completely different. It’s an internal subversion of the main prized American democratic institution. And if this is the case, how can Americans trust that future candidates won’t act and behave similarly to Trump, willing to ignore and flout US norms and rules and laws? And if they can’t, the very fabric of democracy would be in jeopardy.

Another concern is that Trump has been compromised by Russian intelligence—whether because Trump has business interests and ties to shady Russian kleptocrats and mobsters, his purported lascivious activities, or something altogether different. Here, the logic, as you’d expect, is that Trump has placed himself in a position in which he has to cater to Putin’s policy interests and goals or risk being publicly exposed by a vengeful, savvy Putin. There’s long been unsubstantiated whispers about Trump’s willingness to do business with anyone or anything, no matter if laws are flouted or corruption is the coin of the game—and the recent reports of his business dealings with Azerbaijan, which may also involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, only adds credibility to the perception that Trump is more than willing to traffic in murky, dirty waters. Moreover, the 35 page “dossier,” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, outlining Trump’s nighttime activities with Russian prostitutes, has breathed even more life into the idea that Russian officials have substantial Kompromat on him.

If any of this is true, it would be a scandal of epic, unprecedented proportions in US political history. It would make former disgraced US President Richard Nixon seem merely paranoid and inept, hardly a big-time criminal. After all, Nixon’s misdeeds were a bungled attempt to glean information about the Democrats heading into the 1972 presidential election, an election that Nixon won overwhelmingly: he won the popular vote by roughly 18 million and won the electoral vote of 49 of 50 states. In the case of Trump, however, if he and his crew really collaborated with the Russians to win the election—a narrow win, mind you—he aided and abetted a foreign enemy power to breach and subvert the sovereignty of the US. He would be a traitor, subject to all the laws and punishments specified by the American Constitution.

What's Next? 

Right now, the easy thing to say is that we need a blue ribbon independent commission to investigate the election, Trump and his cabal, and the Russian hack. Yes, this type of investigation would be wonderful, as it would be a marked improvement over the current Congressional investigations dominated by the Trump-led GOP. But don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.

Why? Well, keep the following things in mind. First, about 30-35 percent of voting Americans are solidly with Trump, with a smaller base of hardcore supporters willing to ride with Trump until the end. Congressional Republicans, especially those in red states, know this, which makes them hesitant to move strongly against Trump. Second, power dynamics are on Trump’s side. Look, the GOP dominates the House and Senate, which insulates Trump from the type of scrutiny he’d face if he was a Democratic president. Third, Barack Obama has been called the first social media president, but that’s not really true. Donald trump is, and he wields his Twitter and Facebook accounts to his advantage: he has already successfully created his own powerful political narrative, free of filters, which he propagates to millions of people (26+ million on Twitter, 21+ million on Facebook). He paints himself as the champion of the “little guy/gal,” an unfair victim of the “liberal media” and the "deep state," a can-do president with a mandate for real, substantial change, unlike the usual “all-talk” politician. But beyond this, social media have enabled Trump to form a personal connection to his followers, tightening his bond with them, which is an extremely useful political tool for Trump. Fourth, Trump employs an army of public relations folks, like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hold press conferences and make television appearances to spin Trump’s tweets and public statements for popular consumption. Fifth, Trump is aided by conservative and alt-right echo chambers that includes Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars, among others. These outlets shout and scream Trump’s narrative (as put forth by Trump himself and spun by his PR professionals), entrenching it, allowing Trump’s base to wallow in their love for all things Trump and to share in their dislike for Trump’s domestic opponents.

So what we have, then, is a neat, tight feedback loop connecting Trump, his staff, Congressional GOPers, the various Trump media arms, and Trump’s base. All parts of this loop are highly motivated, ready to defend Trump and push back against any and all criminal and salacious allegations, obstructing the search for truth. So should we despair that illegal acts by Team Trump might go overlooked? Not exactly. 

Overall, it's a good thing that liberal activists are mobilized, organizing themselves, taking to the streets, and calling their Representatives and Senators--all in the name of truth and justice. It might not seem like much, but Trump, an incessant cable tv-watcher, is aware of these happenings. In fact, they've likely added to the panic that rogue White House staffers report on social media. Liberals need to continue to demand the truth, preparing themselves for a protracted struggle, but do so using only civil, non-violent means. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said that violence only delegitimizes liberals and their causes and shifts the national discussion from the serious questions about the Trump administration to the extremism of anti-Trump activists. I also recommend that liberal activists begin the process of building formal bridges to independents and moderate/centrist Republicans, so as to ensure that getting to the bottom of #Russiagate isn't strictly a partisan endeavor. 

Additionally, we need journalists to continue to do the deep-digging research and reporting on the Trump and Russia affair. Perhaps these efforts, if more unsavory details are uncovered, will put enough pressure on Trump’s base, especially those who sit outside the hardcore supporters, to recognize that maybe Trump isn’t who they thought he was, which would give some GOPers the green light to move on Trump, if necessary. Or perhaps new information would give Republicans the requisite ammunition to convince a sizable chunk of Trump’s base that more stringent moves against Trump are the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

US Presidential Election: What Happened and Quick Predictions

So what happened in the election? Short answer: Middle America, the so-called flyover states, decided that the US (and probably the rest of world too) needed a swift kick in the butt. Calvin and Hobbes sum it up well, I think.

Yes, Hillary is probably the worst candidate that the Democrats could have nominated this election year. But that ignores the question of why Middle America is angry. As JD Vance noted in his book, Hillbilly Elegy, these folks are in a lot of pain. And worse, they are ignored, by a liberal political elite who fixates on identity politics and culture wars and belittles their concerns

Trump, in essence, is their outlet, their way to give the liberal elite a big middle finger. Do they really believe that Trump is going to build the wall and deport all immigrants? No, most of them don't. In Peter Thiel's words:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

In short, Americans voted for a hyperbolic showman in order to shift the conversation to things that really matter to their lives. Whether they will achieve their goals is a huge question mark. Trump will have to face his biggest test: governing.

So what's next for the world?

I would argue that, Trump being Trump, he doesn't really care much about the American ideals of spreading democracy, improving human rights conditions in foreign nations, etc. In fact, I predict he will be both isolationist, in the sense that he won't attempt to expand American power abroad to protect human rights, and businesslike, in that he will solely focus on making deals. I know that this is cliche, but I think he will be Putin-like: he will be quite coldblooded in his foreign policy dealings, probably not dissimilar to pre-Carter US foreign policy.

While this may be outrageous to many people hoping to have the United States to maintain its ideals, Trump might actually drive a stronger and more effective foreign policy. But the key question is whether Trump has the discipline to do so. Plus, he needs to deal with skeptical leaders from all over the world, who wonder whether Trump is a showman who can actually deliver or just another snake-oil seller.

Many people, in the US and around the world, believe that he is unsuited to govern. Obama even declared that Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States. So in the end, it could very well be somewhat easy for him to prove his critics wrong because he has such a low bar to cross. Strange as it may sound, seeming only slightly sensible on governing issues is probably a big win for him politically.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Meaning and Fallout of Trump's Win

Photo: Dina Litovsky for TIME

Okay, I'm definitely not crazy about Trump being the next US president, but I'm also not creating an underground bunker or making plans to head to Canada. Mostly, I'm fascinated by it all. Here are few things that caught my attention. For now, I’m focusing my eye on the domestic political battles and fallout of yesterday’s vote. In future posts, I will discuss the foreign policy implications of a Trump presidency. 

1. I’m fascinated that the polls, pollsters, and forecasters got it so wrong. This is the latest in a string of faulty polls this year. Brexit, the Columbian-FARC referendum and now Trump’s election defied the polls, and all were major upsets on the magnitude of the Cubs winning the World Series and Leicester City winning last season’s Premier League. In fact, 2016 seems to be the year of the upset, of the unlikely actually happening.

2. The US elected its second consecutive political unknown. Barack Obama was so inexperienced and so unfamiliar to many Americans when he started his campaign in 2007, yet he climbed Mount Clinton and McCain to the White House. Trump has followed in these footsteps. It might sound strange, perhaps, to say that Trump is an unknown figure. After all, Trump, as a personality, is well-known, and he's said crazy, highly-publicized things, but he’s a political neophyte, much more so than Obama. Plus, what does he really think and believe? He's taken many sides on a number of issues; plus, he was a liberal Democrat as of just a few years ago. So what are his political beliefs? I’m really not sure, and I suspect many Trump supporters, if they answered honestly, would say the same. For instance, this is one comment I hear repeatedly from Trump folks: All the crazy stuff Trump says? He doesn’t mean it. It’s just for entertainment purposes. Perhaps, but that’s pure speculation.

3. Additionally, there's a "kiss the ring" aspect now to GOP politics. Trump won, and he's now in a position to exact revenge on those Republicans and Conservatives--elected officials, party leaders, donors, conservative thinkers and writers—who distanced themselves from or came out against him, unless they pledge fealty to Trump. How will Trump the Godfather play his hand?

4. There’s also the huge shift in the dominant narrative of the Democratic Party. In a matter of hours, the predicted huge, lightning win for the Clinton juggernaut has quickly morphed into elegies about a Democratic party in tatters. That’s too alarmist for my taste. Still, the question about the impact of Trump’s rise on the Democratic Party is an interesting one that will unfold over the next few years. Furthermore, Democrats will have to think long and hard about how to shore up their weak areas of support: white folks, especially white men, members of the military, citizens without a college degree, the 40 and over crowd, and Christians, among others. 

5. And then we have the drama about the Trump-Clinton legal battle that has yet to be settled. Will he indeed set up an investigation into all of Clinton’s dealings and correspondence, as he publicly suggested in one of the debates? Or will he scuttle that idea, content with the fact he won the presidency. Congressional Republicans, in general, do not want Clinton investigations, for fear of political overreach. But at the same time, many of Trump’s base of support want her political blood. They’ve feared her for 30 years and see her as the enemy, no different than al-Qaeda or ISIS or North Korea. Thus far, throughout the campaign season, Trump has eschewed political convention and catered to his base. Will he continue that modus operandi as president?

6. Lastly, keep in mind that Trumpism is real and can’t be wished or hoped away. And it’s not just a set of thoughts and beliefs of a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton stated. So what is it? What is Trumpism?

It’s a 21st century American form of populism. It includes a fear of change, of immigrants and Americans of color transforming the US into looking and feeling differently and troubled. It believes that ordinary citizens are getting ripped off by elites, in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere. It perceives that leaders in Washington don’t listen to or care about ordinary citizens, at all—that there’s way too much neglect about lost factory and manufacturing jobs, too little focus on job retraining, not enough attention to drugs and violence in cities, among other things. And there’s widespread worry that folks can’t move up in the world, that the doors to a better life are locked and they can’t get in. And these doors are locked by the greedy, nepotistic, and corrupt—all of whom are hoarding economic and political power for their selfish professional and personal gain. Viewed though this prism, Trump voters see themselves living in a purportedly free society, yet it feels, in very tangible ways, like elite-imposed imprisonment.

7. Will Trump get eaten by his own monster, his own creation? What happens when Trump, as is inevitably the case, disappoints his base? Do they stick with them? And are they just as enthusiastic about him in a year or two down the road? Or do they abandon him? Specifically, what happens to Trump’s political fortunes if dismantling Obamacare and building his proposed wall prove to be much tougher than he promised? This is something to consider, as 2018 and another round of elections isn’t that far away. Put simply, Trump’s rise could very well lead to a Trump backlash, paving the way for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2018. 

A quick look back at Obama’s first term is instructive here. The hope and joy on the left for Obama’s ascent quickly gave way to apathy and disappointment by 2010. Obama's planned domestic upgrades either weren't happening or weren't happening fast enough, for Republicans and Conservatives, certainly, but also, for his political base on the left as well: wages weren't rising, jobs weren't coming back, Obamacare wasn't a panacea, the financial stimulus was increasingly unpopular, the debt kept rising, and so on. And in the 2010 elections, with an unmotivated liberal base failing to turn out in the same numbers as in 2008, Republicans gained six Senate seats and 63 House seats, one of the worst showings for an incumbent party in 60 plus years. 

Even though he's not yet in office, Trump is already on the clock. How he handles himself publicly, how he deals with both parties, who he puts in his cabinet, and the fleshed-out contents of his policies will shape and influence his political standing and power going forward, from this moment on. It’s up to him to wisely spend or waste his political power.

8. What I am most concerned about is that, throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has catered and cozied up to the white nationalist crowd. And this crowd sees Trump as one of them. Combined, we now have an environment in America in which KKK-types feel emboldened to do and say reprehensible things. Already, since Wednesday morning, when the the election results became clear, there have been a number of racist, hateful acts committed by Trump-inspired thugs and goons, who have targeted women, blacks, Latinos(as), Muslims, and so on. The activist and social media maven Shaun King has done a good job documenting the growing number of hate crimes and acts.

Trump needs to get on top of this wave of hate, and fast. He must not only distance himself and his incoming administration from the racists and xenophobes, he must condemn them and their words and deeds. If he really wants to govern for all Americans, as he has said, then this is something he has to do.

9. I would like to end on a positive note. At this point, I'm not overly alarmed about Trump the policymaker. Sure, he's proposed some kooky and at times offensive domestic and foreign policies. And, yes, his administration will likely employ some goofs and no-nothings. Names like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, Corey Lewandowski and John Bolton--rumored candidates for spots in a Trump government--hardly inspire confidence. In fact, on Sunday, Trump announced that Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart and conspiracy theory propagandist, will serve as his Chief Strategist and the constantly befuddled RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff. That doesn't sound good, certainly, but there is a silver lining.

The US possesses strong and durable domestic political institutions as well as a host of highly motivated oppositional actors, and these forces will look to circumscribe Trump's power and block any and all of Trump's most harmful policies. In fact, the protesters in the streets in several cities already have put Trump on notice of this very fact. Together, by Constitutional design, they can work to channel Trump away from his worst instincts and into a more productive direction. If anything, rather than impending fascism and strongman rule--which are concerns of leftists and "Never Trumpers" on the right--I see continued, and perhaps even heightened, political and policy gridlock and paralysis.

So, to those who lament a Trump presidency and the demise of American democracy, all is not lost; work hard and keep up the fight for what you believe in. To the Trump supporters, be happy. Your preferred candidate won. I hope Trump goes to bat for you and your interests and makes your lives better, more enriched. And to all Americans, after such a tough, vitriolic campaign season, I hope we all can remain calm and reasonable, more willing to listen and understand the beliefs and attitudes of those across the political aisle, and better able to find common ground on important issues of the day. And just remember, like President Obama said Thursday, if Trump succeeds as president, America also succeeds. Those are good words to keep in mind.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test

Below is a conversation between CWCP President Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Yohanes Sulaiman on the North Korea’s recent nuclear test. It took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: As you know, North Korea has conducted its 5th nuclear test, and this one is supposedly the most powerful one yet. And not only that, North Korea claims that it now has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. So, in other words, North Korea is ostensibly mastering all parts of its military nuclear program, from start-up to weaponization. What are your thoughts on these latest developments?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Einstein once supposedly defined insanity as, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

While that may be true, one thing for sure is that these nuclear tests are getting boring. Yes, it is the ultimate weapon of destruction. Yes, Japan will be ticked, and so will South Korea and the rest of the world. These tests are mostly for domestic consumption, to signal that the regime is in control as well to placate the military top brass. Sure, China won’t be happy and might tighten the economic blockade, though just a little, because it too worries about the survival of the Kim regime.

So what else is new?

Basically, everyone is satisfied the status quo, excluding the North Koreans of course, and that's why they are rattling their cage once in a while, like spoiled kids. Frankly, at this point, no matter if Pyongyang detonates its sixth, seventh, or tenth nuclear test, I don't expect the structural situation will change.

These nuclear tests are provocative. But as we saw in the Cheonan sinking and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, South Korea managed to stay unprovoked. And I doubt that North Korea could launch a serious military invasion to South Korea or Japan, considering that North Korea's weaponry is stuck at Cold War technology and its troops' morale is abysmally low.

Moreover, it is doubtful if North Korea could actually invade or launch terrorist attacks on South Korea or Japan without China finally deciding to cut the regime loose and replace it with something far less belligerent, because, unlike China's own low-cost provocations in South China Seas, East Asia is a far more serious matter for China. But, of course, regime change in North Korea is a risky matter for China too.

BN: I agree that the structural elements haven't changed much, if at all. What is most new, at least to me, is the US angle. No, I don't mean that the Obama administration will jump to action, or at least any action that differs from what it's sought and done in the past. So that means condemnation from American officials, expressions of restraint, a push for a UN rebuke and potentially more sanctions, and hope that China can bail the US out. In short, more of the same. But at this point, that means kicking the can down the road to Obama's successor, which he hopes, of course, is Clinton. So we'll see just enough effort to ensure Korea isn't on fire by election time in November, but no movement beyond that. There too little time for anything bigger.

Moreover, that this nuclear test occurred during a presidential campaign means they'll become a political football between Clinton and Trump for the next two months. We'll hear heated rhetoric from not only Clinton and Trump, and their surrogates, with each side arguing who will be the toughest on the Kim government. Will those sharp words bait North Korea into doing more dumb things?

YS: Well, right on cue, have you checked out this Politico news item? Obama got hit from both the Clinton and Trump camps, though Trump is also hitting Clinton over North Korea.

But back to North Korea: I doubt Kim really cares about what Clinton or Trump think about him or the state itself. Yes, North Korea wants global recognition; but unlike terrorist groups, which derive legitimacy from them actually being talked about, I think North Korea has a different reward structure—extracting concessions from testing, weaponizing and threatening to use nuclear weapons. In essence, I think Pyongyang does hope to blackmail other nations: “See, now that we have a bigger bomb, you need to give us more!”

BN: Let's turn to the next steps. I touched on this issue a bit already and am curious to hear your thoughts. What do you think happens going forward--both in terms over the very short-term, over the next few weeks and months, as well as over the next year or two? To me, to a certain extent, all sides--except North Korea--want to keep the status quo intact, but that doesn't seem particularly sustainable over time, for manifold reasons. 

YS: Okay, what will happen in near future? I don't think there will be anything new or novel in the short-term. We’ll see the usual condemnations through the United Nations -- as long as China does not want to do something. This all changes, undoubtedly, if South Korea suddenly goes through with its implicit threat to level Pyongyang, or at least seems on the brink of doing that -- which is very, very unlikely; or if North Korea, probably really late in the game, actually weaponizes its arsenal and prepares to launch.

I think the fear in Beijing is that if it squeezes Pyongyang too hard, the regime will collapse. And China doesn’t want that to happen, so it will do nothing simply because Beijing does not have any palatable option left. Both Seoul and Washington, I think, prefer to let the regime just collapse on its own.

So what's the solution? Fred Kaplan, I think, gets it right, in that the only way to squeeze Pyongyang is by squeezing China, regardless of its fear of regime collapse. At the same time, I simply don't think Obama has the guts or political willingness to do that so late in his term, and he is a safe player anyway. Hillary, I think, will be willing to take more risks. Trump is a wild card. I am not sure if he really thinks North Korea is that important. But at the same time, that might be the exact approach that we need.

BN: I do agree that Kaplan is on to something, though I disagree with the US putting direct pressure on China--his notion of using sticks and carrots. China will resist it, complain about it, and relations will only worsen at a time in which the US can ill afford more global headaches. That said, I find this idea by Kaplan a bit compelling: "So the United States should rally the same sort of campaign that revved up the pressure against Iran before those nuclear talks got underway." Maybe the power of numbers can indirectly move China. Worth a shot, in my view. But such an effort shouldn't only include East Asian nations impacted by a nuclear North Korea, but also include countries--as many as possible, big and small, friend and foe of Washington--from all parts of the world. The US should put together, in short, a true global coalition motivated to contain if not roll back the nuclear progress that North Korea has achieved over the last decade.

The main obstacle here isn't whether such an initiative would work, though of course it's debatable whether it would, nor is it about the lack of time left in Obama's tenure, though that matters too. Instead, it's that Obama isn't interested in doing the dirty work of coalition building. His political modus operandi is to delegate, whether on health care, the Iran nuclear deal or Syria. He wants others to come together on their own and sort out the details. He was saved on health care and Iran by the Democrats and John Kerry and his team (Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns, most notably), respectively; on Syria, there's been no savior. The great myth is that Obama has lead from behind in foreign policy; I see little leadership on important issues like the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine, Brexit, world populism, global economic growth, and so on. Indeed, on several of the aforementioned issues the US has been surpassed, at least in terms of leadership, by China and Russia. More often than not, Obama's delegated from the front and then went golfing. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only by a little bit.

Hence, the mess is left to the next administration, and that, quite frankly, isn't reassuring. For at this point, the potential successors to Obama are a scandal-ridden Nixonian figure and a possibly racist and xenophobic political neophyte who knows almost nothing about world politics.

YS: I think a comparison with Iran is instructive. The main distinction between the cases of Iran and North Korea is that the major powers, really, wouldn’t be completely inconvenienced with the collapse of the regime in Iran. The geographic puzzle in the case of North Korea significantly differs.

Russia and China and Japan are there, India, an aspiring power is not too far away, and there are thousands of US forces stationed within a heartbeat of a North Korean nuclear launch. Additionally, should the Kim dynasty collapse, it is in everyone's playbook that it be followed by reunification, and "unification" is the raison d'etre of both North and South Korea. If China decides to cobble together another Beijing-friendly regime, that regime will have zero credibility in Seoul, and even among Koreans themselves, and I think this freaks China out.

That's why it is difficult to use "Iran" playbook -- the only path to Pyongyang is through Beijing.

On Obama, I agree wholeheartedly with your view. He is not a leader that is willing to do the dirty work. He will give platitudes and leave the mess for everyone to fix. So, like you, I have no hope that the current US administration will do much any anything here.

It would be interesting if Trump wins in November. He might do better than expected simply because he has such a low bar to cross, so to speak. Plus, he has a clean slate with the region’s major players. Hillary might be far more politically competent, but her baggage vis-à-vis Russia and China could make the existing North Korean dilemma an intractable one for her. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Death of the American Expert

One of the trends in America over the last decade has been the disparagement of experts—policymakers, analysts, and scholars. They are under fire, from the right and left, their standing is increasingly tarnished and diminished, and now find themselves wondering where and how they fit in American society. What has happened? And how did we get here? The answer, in brief, is that it hasn’t happened overnight and the causes are variegated and complex.

Arguably, the first meaningful trace of this was the election of George W. Bush in 2000. That election de-emphasized the notion of leader as expert. Sure, Bush was Ivy League-trained and was the former governor of Texas, impressive qualifications. But based on his speeches, interviews and debate performance, it was clear that he knew only a modest amount about foreign affairs, economics, and so on, especially relative to his Democratic rival for the presidency, Al Gore. But that mattered little to the electorate. American citizens were sick of a morally corrupt and scandal-ridden Clinton administration, under which Gore served as Veep. But another issue for Gore was the perception that he was an overzealous adult nerd, someone too anxious to tell anyone and everyone how much he knew and how much others didn’t. Bush, by contrast, didn’t emphasize his knowledge of the US or the world; instead, he rested his case on his supposed preternatural ability to make good decisions (based on information that his staff procures and sifts through). After all, he called himself “The Decider.”

But just as important, Bush portrayed himself as an ordinary American, a guy who loves the outdoors, works out, goes to church, cherishes his family, and so on. A key part of the Bush campaign in 2000 and in his reelection effort in 2004 was the Karl Rove-led strategy to demonstrate that he wasn’t different or better than the average American. In effect, the US was getting an ordinary Joe in office, not an expert or a member of the intelligentsia. It might sound silly, as Bush, since birth, has been a member of the political and economic American elite, but in his speech and walk and demeanor, he fully embraced the role of a guy with whom people wanted to have a coffee or beer.

Another milestone was the collapse of the American economy in 2008. That event damaged the credibility of and confidence in the expert community. US citizens wondered why the experts were unable to foresee the financial disaster and recommend measures to head it off. The experts got it wrong. They fundamentally failed to understand the macro-economic basics of the world economy as well as the micro-economic specific root causes of the US economic collapse. Moreover, there was (and still is) the belief that some of these experts were working against their national economies, trying to make a buck off the failure of these economies. In short, they were corrupt.

The third and latest iteration of the fall of the experts can been seen in rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s political ascension (and to a similar extent Bernie Sanders’s) signals a full-fledged turn against experts and a fact-based society by a significant portion of the electorate. Yes, Trump does repeatedly call attention to his alleged intelligence and his schooling at the famed Wharton School, but he prizes just as much, if not more so, his common sense, his ability to “get things done,” and his everyman sensibility. That’s why he bills himself as an “everyman billionaire”: Trump is just like any other American, except for his wealth and opulence. And it’s easy to create this tale, because it has bled into his life and campaign—whether by design or not.

Put simply, Trump knows little about the world, seems uninterested in much beyond making money and accruing power, and has surrounded himself with a cast of characters who are political neophytes at best and politically ignorant at worst. Despite these and other flaws, Trump is holding steady with Hillary Clinton in national and state polls. Trump’s appeal is based on a lowest-common denominator philosophy: he admittedly acquires knowledge from watching television, spins conspiracy theories, has a shaky relationship with facts, and engages in petty grade school-level name-calling against political opponents, journalists and critics.

What’s shaped and caused the above set of events? I see three main factors. First, there is the real sense among Americans that they’ve been unrepresented, ignored, excluded, and taken advantage of by national leaders, political parties, economic elites, scholars, and more—the very people who are supposed to know things about the us and the world. These disempowered and angry folks now want their voice to be heard, their interests acted upon, and their stake in the state to increase, precisely at the expense of the experts and elites. The successful Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns, built on the backs of the aggrieved and the outsiders, are the latest manifestation of this growing trend.

Second, the politicization of America’s media has also played a role here. It is routine to see news shows featuring officials, spokespersons and surrogates of the right and left debating various issues and problems. The media has done this in the name of being “fair and balanced,” and not tools of a particular ideology or party. Okay, but this has unleashed a nasty consequence: namely, the widespread belief that the left and the right each have their own set of facts—that facts themselves aren’t value or ideological neutral but are inherently politicized. In this world, there are no real experts, at least not the usual sense of the world, and anyone who claims that mantle is viewed with suspicion. Instead, there are glorified cheerleaders who marshal a liberal or conservative set of facts, on a particular pet causes and issues, that they then use to preach to the already-converted.

Third, the Internet has engendered a massive democratization of information. Nowadays, people can gather information in more ways than ever before, and they, including ordinary folks, can now also act as purveyors of information. No degree, lofty job, or significant life experience is needed; in fact, no real demonstrated expertise required to dispense “facts” and ideas to a global audience. As long as someone can plug into the Internet, that person can start a web site, a blog, a message board, a YouTube page, a Twitter and Facebook account, etc., from which they can share and spread ideas and acquire readers and followers—in the exact same ways, using the same tools, that credible and verifiable experts routinely do to disseminate research and insight. They all sit in the same worldwide e-domain and compete for attention. In fact, nowadays attention—in the form of followers and the number of likes—is conflated with expertise. That is to say, one must be an expert, so goes the logic, to have so many readers and followers. But that’s not necessarily the case, of course, and sometimes it can be far from it.

All of the above, by themselves and collectively, are serious and often harmful, quite frankly—for a variety of reasons, including a deleterious impact on American social cohesion, political polarization, and governmental performance, among other things.

On a micro, individual level, it’s difficult for Americans to participate in a highly sophisticated and competitive globalized US economy if they don’t value knowledge. In the end, such views only leave these folks farther behind politically and economically, and reinforces the tendency for them to feel victimized by larger, uncontrollable forces.

The larger picture suggests it’s hard for Americans to get on the same page politically, economically and socially if they can’t agree on a set of facts, have their own set of facts, and view those who disagree with them as outsiders and even at times enemies. Just as troubling, these circumstances reverberate upward, as they provide pressure on political elites to think and act in similar ways or risk getting punished at the ballot. This means politicians not only must disagree with the opposing political party but at times paint and treat that party as repugnant, vile and even traitorous. The product of the cycle is protracted political gridlock, a stymied policy process, and a continued tear at the fabric of America.